Presented on Wednesday, May 15, 2019 in Cowles Hall on the Elmira College Campus as part of the Spring 2019 "Trouble Begins" Lecture Series.
Told by the New Orleans fortune teller Madame Caprell that he should have been a lawyer, Samuel Clemens dismissed the law as "too prosy and tiresome." But his immersion in legal language and legal fictions betrayed him. From the early days of his career, covering the Nevada Territorial legislature and reporting on the police and court beat in the Territorial Enterprise, he plied what he called the "trade language" of the law. His legal burlesques of that formative period, including the first use of the pseudonym "Mark Twain" in "Ye Sentimental Law Student," show the emerging burlesque patterns that appear in his novels. These burlesques also parallel important 19th century movements in American law that democratized and simplified legalese. This lecture will explore these burlesques from a legal perspective and trace their influence, particularly in the dramatic stagings of court trials that appear so often in longer works. Twain himself once pronounced that a great writer must have an "infinitely divided stardust," a genius who undestood humanity from the two essential disciplines: literature and the law.
J.Mark Baggett is Associate Professor of English and Law at Samford University and Cumberland Law School. His recent research on Twain's use of legal rhetoric is an outgrowth of his teaching law at Cumberland since 1987. He contributed articles on legal issues in the Mark Twain Encyclopedia and is working on a book-length project on Mark Twain and the law, building on interdisciplinary research on Twain's broad appropriation of legal rhetoric.